Shrimp season opens for altered La. industry

Published 11:41 pm Monday, May 11, 2009

The fleet of shrimpers that sailed into the Louisiana’s spring shrimp season on Monday was a smaller and heavily changed version of the state’s traditional industry.

Although Louisiana leads the country in domestic production of shrimp, with fishers hauling in 57.8 million pounds last year, it amounts to less than 5 percent of the shrimp consumed in the United States. More than 90 percent of U.S. consumption is from imports.

That accounts for the mostly steady shrimp prices at the market throughout the year, unlike the week-to-week jumps and dips in Louisiana’s other spring seafood commodity: the live crawfish market.

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Shrimp can be frozen and stored for months. Unlike crawfish, Gulf shrimp are technically available all year, though in smaller quantities during the winter and early spring when only offshore Gulf waters are open to shrimping.

The number of active shrimpers is now about 5,000, a quarter of what it once was, but the amount of shrimp harvested has not dipped dramatically.

When imports started to increase in the 1990s, many biologists recommended measures to reduce the size of the fleet to lessen the hit across the industry.

Though economics has whittled down the fleet, some states have also embarked on government-led programs to reduce the number of boats. Texas last year finished a 14-year program that bought out the licenses of more than 1,800 inshore shrimpers — more than half the fleet.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department officials said the program has increased the efficiency of those shrimpers who remained.

Last year’s season was among the lowest catches in a decade in Louisiana, down about 10 million pounds from 2007 and nearly 30 million pounds from 2006, which was a bumper crop after Hurricane Katrina.

Hurricanes Gustav and Ike played some role in the downturn, and many in the industry blamed fresh water from last year’s Mississippi River flooding for the reduced catch. With the river at high stages, more fresh water than usual flowed into the marshes through diversion structures.

The catch for brown shrimp, which thrive in saltwater, was about half of what it was in 2007. The catch for white shrimp, which typically thrive in lower salinity and yield a better price, was on par with years past and above the 30-year average.